RATATOUILLE: A Recipe for the Senses

by Jeanne


     "If you are what you eat, I only want to eat good stuff."

                                                                    -Chef Remy

Take one part ambitious rat with an overdeveloped sense of smell and taste; add the best animation team around and place in the world of high profile restaurants and grill, sauté, and flambé for nearly two hours and serve up in Paris.  Viola an aromatic visual feast.

While I will admit to at first being a bit uneasy with the whole rat in a kitchen idea Remy charmed and won my heart with his dream to ‘chef.’  And there’s a lot we can learn from this "little chef."  But this is a story not about a rat. No it’s a story of Remy who follows his heart and puts his passion into being that dream against all odds. Trite as that may sound the folks at Pixar have assembled a delightfully, sweet and visually edible story to while a way a summer afternoon. 

The Pixar crew took cooking classes, ate at notable restaurants in Paris and worked alongside Keller at the French Laundry. The commitment paid off in the dishes we see and can nearly taste: steamed pike with butter, braised fennel and heirloom potatoes; grilled petit filet mignon with oxtail and baby onion ragout topped with truffled bordelaise and shaved Perigord truffle. We also learn a few kitchen secrets along the way such as how a fresh baguette should sound, the proper way to chop a leek, and the value of keeping your station, and your sleeves clean. But the biggest lesson comes in the form of how to melt the coldest heart with a warm dish. This lesson comes through Anton Ego, portrayed by Peter O’Toole , the morbidly jaded restaurant critic.

The story made me immediately hungry and has inspired me to deconstructing the dish of the film’s name over the next few weeks. There are many variations as there are French mothers. The dish and films’ name, Ratatouille is the blending of two French words: rata, slang from the French Army meaning "chunky stew" and for the verb, ‘to stir’, touiller.

Remy’s Ratatouille

Confit Byaldi

Recipe adapted from Chef Thomas Keller of French Laundry, Yountville, CA

Byaldi is a French cooking term for a layered vegetable dish that is cooked slowly to intensify the flavors.  The term is taken from a Turkish dish, imam bayildi, meaning "the imam fainted" and its historical significance, according to Clifford Wright, refers to "when he tasted how good it was; or that the imam fainted when he saw how much expensive olive oil was used to prepare the traditional version of the dish  Essentially, confit byaldi is a fancy pants version of ratatouille.

Start to finish: 3 1/2 hours, 1 hour active

Servings: 4

Piperade (bottom layer):

1/2 red bell pepper, seeds and ribs removed

1/2 yellow bell pepper, seeds and ribs removed

1/2 orange bell pepper, seeds and ribs removed

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 teaspoon minced garlic

1/2 cup finely diced yellow onion

3 tomatoes (about 12 ounces total weight), peeled, seeded and finely diced, juices reserved

1 sprig fresh thyme

1 sprig flat-leaf parsley

1/2 a bay leaf

Kosher salt

For the vegetables:

1 medium zucchini (4 to 5 ounces) sliced in 1/16-inch-thick rounds

1 Japanese eggplant (4 to 5 ounces) sliced into 1/16-inch-thick rounds

1 yellow (summer) squash (4 to 5 ounces) sliced into 1/16-inch-thick rounds

4 Roma tomatoes, sliced into 1/16-inch-thick rounds

1/2 teaspoon minced garlic

2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil

1/8 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

For the vinaigrette:

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar

Assorted fresh herbs (such as thyme flowers, chervil, thyme)

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Special equipment: Oven-proof skillet

Make the piperade, preheat oven to 450 F. Line a baking sheet with foil.

Place pepper halves on the baking sheet, cut side down. Roast until the skins loosen, about 15 minutes. Remove the peppers from the oven and let rest until cool enough to handle. Reduce the oven temperature to 275 F.

Peel the peppers and discard the skins. Finely chop the peppers, then set aside.

In medium skillet over low heat, combine oil, garlic and onion and saute until very soft but not browned, about eight minutes.

Add the tomatoes, their juices, thyme, parsley and bay leaf. Bring to a simmer over low heat and cook until very soft and little liquid remains, about 10 minutes. Do not brown.

Add the peppers and simmer to soften them. Discard the herbs, then season to taste with salt. Reserve a tablespoon of the mixture, then spread the remainder over the bottom of an 8-inch oven-proof skillet.

To prepare the vegetables, arrange the sliced zucchini, eggplant, squash and tomatoes over the piperade in the skillet.

Begin by arranging eight alternating slices of vegetables down the centre, overlapping them so that 1/4 inch of each slice is exposed. This will be the centre of the spiral. Around the centre strip, overlap the vegetables in a close spiral that lets slices mound slightly toward centre. All vegetables may not be needed. Set aside.

In a small bowl, mix the garlic, oil and thyme, then season with salt and pepper to taste. Sprinkle this over vegetables.

Cover the skillet with foil and crimp edges to seal well. Bake until the vegetables are tender when tested with a paring knife, about two hours. Uncover and bake for another 30 minutes. (Lightly cover with foil if it starts to brown.)

If there is excess liquid in pan, place it over medium heat on stove until reduced. (At this point it may be cooled, covered and refrigerated for up to two days. Serve cold or reheat in 350 F oven until warm.)

To make the vinaigrette, in a small bowl whisk together the reserved piperade, oil, vinegar, herbs, and salt and pepper to taste.

To serve, heat the broiler and place skillet under it until lightly browned. Slice in quarters and lift very carefully onto plate with an offset spatula. Turn spatula 90 degrees as you set the food down, gently fanning the food into fan shape. Drizzle the vinaigrette around plate.